Exhilarating would be one way to describe the boat ride yesterday from Thaton to Chiang Rai. Harrowing would be another, for the less hardy. Billed as a peaceful, scenic route to Chiang Rai, passing through remote wilderness, the four hour ride was certainly eventful.
Though we had only seen about 10 foreigners in Thaton, they were all obviously there for the same reason we were. As a public service that originally was used to ferry local people between Thaton and Chiang Rai, I don’t think it was designed for a full load of foreigners (some portlier than others), all carrying backpacks. As each traveller embarked, the boat sank lower and lower, until the edges were only slightly above the waterline.
With each person lying sideways across the boat, alternately facing left and right, our heads and feet were pretty much at river level, with our bodies and bags most assuredly below it. As the boat made a tight turn to leave the jetty, one side of the boat was almost inundated, requiring some judicious rearranging of passengers so that the load was evenly distributed on both sides. There are fish in the Mae Kok River, but there were a dozen sardines in that boat.
The rainy season finished months ago, and it was apparent that the dry season had lowered the river level significantly, revealing normally submersed detritus. Rather than taking a straight line, the captain zig-zagged downriver much of the way, picking lines between exposed rocks and tree trunks and moving to the outside bank to find the deepest water. In some areas, we could see the bottom, despite it not being the clearest water, and in a couple of cases our combined weight caused us to scrape along the bottom, making a grating sound that matched the disposition of a few passengers’ nerves. I’m not the strongest swimmer, but was still relaxed. In the event that we capsized or ran aground with the river the way it was, I could have just walked to the river bank with my belongings!
Once we were reasonably comfortable being seated below the waterline in what amounted to an oversized date box narrow enough that I couldn’t straighten my legs, we were able to focus on the lovely surroundings.
As the river eased its way eastwards, we were able to see how important it remained for a number of communities, despite its low level. Farmers were relying on it for irrigation. Children and adults from small fishing villagers caught dinner, bathed, played and cleaned clothes. In one surreal moment, we negotiated a bend in the river and came almost literally face to face with some Thai buffalo, cooling off in the water.
Just as we were settling in, we made what turned out to be the first of three abrupt stops. A crude sign painted in English announced upcoming rapids that were too dangerous to traverse in a fully-laden boat; we had to get out and walk 400m. Some locals had cunningly set up a riverside market en route so we used the opportunity to stretch our legs for a few minutes, while the captain traversed the rapids.
Tightly squeezed as we were, we couldn’t believe it when we were hailed down from the river bank to take on two more passengers! The guest house we stopped at was in a village too small to even have a name. Given a map of Nowhere, I could confidently point to this place as being right in the middle. Our new arrivals crammed into the front of the boat and we carried on, fortunately into deeper waters that mostly avoided any further scrapes. After a third and final stop at a trading post, manned by a couple who spoke English, French, Thai and German (they really didn’t want to lose a sale!), we arrived in Chiang Rai in one piece, slightly shaken but certainly stirred by the experience.
Another night here at the friendly Lek Hotel precedes our border crossing into Laos at Chiang Khong. We have a further boat trip planned in Laos along the Nam Ou from Nong Khiaw to Luang Prabang. Here’s hoping the remoteness of the former ensures a slightly higher and drier trip to the latter!